Sunday, September 19, 2010


I am digging this weekend.  On Friday we got a new mattress.  For the first time in years I am not sleeping on something shaped like a hotdog bun.  Yesterday I woke up after precisely 8 hours of sleep, totally refreshed, sans backache.  Yes!  The husband and I went for a sunny walk, and then he dropped me off at the salon for a haircut.  My new hairdresser looked at the pictures I showed her and totally delivered on the texture and shape I wanted.  Just as I was thinking that I’d finally gotten the kind of cut and service I was accustomed to getting in San Francisco, the woman at the front desk handed me my bill.  $30?  I was so astounded I tipped 50%. 

Later we made plans to have a few people over for nachos & game night.  I’d wanted to make gluten-free cupcakes for a few weeks now, so I fired up the standing mixer and got to it.  As it was whirring away I had the thought, “I would way rather drive this mixer than any car.”  The icing for the cupcakes was billed as ‘spreadable’ in my Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book.  But it turned out more like a glaze, running in drips down the sides of my surprisingly springy, light cupcakes.  Not to be defeated, I put just a dollop on the top of each cupcake to keep the moisture in and stashed the rest of the icing in a bowl in the fridge.  When it was time for dessert, I brought out the extra frosting and smiles popped up all around.  Apparently, nothing makes up for runny icing like MORE runny icing.  

Good friends, a game of Apples to Apples, good sleep, a decent haircut: all of these have added up to an impressively satisfying and relaxing foundation that carried into today.
Today has been spent getting up late, reading the New York Times, taking a leisurely walk, chatting briefly on the phone with some of my nearest and dearest, and menu planning for Kevin’s birthday celebration.  If there is anything I enjoy, it is a good menu planning session.  There have been 10 different cookbooks on the table, several serious discussions about minute variations of the original menu concept, internet research on cocktail recipes and even a brief tangential inquiry into how long it takes, exactly, to make Worcestershire sauce from scratch (not long, but it has to cure for 3 weeks).  Now I am eating the dinner my husband made for me - white beans, with spinach & parsley cooked in bacon fat – while I make little happy food moves. 

Before I wrap up, you may remember the part where I said nachos.  There are probably a million different topping combinations to make mind-blowing nachos.  But I want to share with you one of the most important things about making nachos: the foundation. You don’t just make nachos, you build them.  So choose your chips wisely.  They should be sturdy - at least medium thickness – and salted.  To start your foundation, lightly coat a baking sheet in cooking spray.  Spread a layer of chips on the pan.  The chips should overlap a little so that toppings do not seep through and fuse to the pan in the oven.  If you are having meat, distribute it on top of the chips fairly evenly.  We use ground beef or turkey prepared as if for tacos with a spice packet, onion and tomato paste.  The second structural element of your nachos is cheese.  You simply have to have cheese.  We use a shredded blend with cheddar and jack.  Spread cheese thickly over the meat (if using).  It needs to be thick enough to stick to the layer of chips that you will place on top of the cheese.  Do not chintz out.  Being generous with your cheese makes your meal go from nachos to NACHOS. 

Now place that second layer of chips over the cheese.  This time you don’t need to worry about them overlapping as much, and this layer can have a smaller circumference than the original layer of chips.  You are building a mound, so it will be higher in the middle than the edges.  Next do another layer of meat.  After that, you get to improvise and add whatever other toppings you like.  We add sliced black olives and pickled jalapenos.  The last layer is another layer of cheese.  This one is less for structural integrity and more for good looks and mouth-feel.  But put enough cheese on there so that when it melts it has some substance to it and will stretch when you pull the chips apart. 

Put your architecturally-sound nachos in a 450 degree oven for about 10 minutes.  They are done when the chips around the edges begin to brown and the cheese on top begins to bubble and brown.  The point of baking your nachos is to fuse the ingredients together, nothing more.  Since the oven is so hot, keep a watchful eye on everything and check the pan at 7-8 minutes.

When you are satisfied with how the cheese has melted and fused everything together, pull the nachos out of the oven and serve with whatever appeals to you most.  At our house we tend to just want a little Cholula sauce.  But for company, we serve them with chopped scallions and sour cream as well.  Whether you’re making a meal for one or feeding a crowd, building a good foundation ensures that you will enjoy the heck out of your NACHOS.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

take two sazaracs

Two sazeracs were in order when we got home from work.  We'd made them the day before as well.  The sazerac redux was motivated by the ugly reality that Kevin's paycheck never materialized last month.  It's his department's fault, and the payroll department will not fix it until August 31st.  Don't worry - we have emergency savings, we will not go without food or a roof over our heads.  But this type of situation boils the blood, just like the North Carolina summer sun.  We need something substantial and good to focus on.  The sazerac, with a nice sturdy rye base all brightened up with Pernod and bitters, definitely fits the bill.

We always consult Mr. Boston when we are hankering for a cocktail.  Rather than reprint their recipe here (since I wouldn't alter it) I found one on Chow that will work perfectly:  If you are at all inclined to like amber liquors, you should give the sazerac a try.  All you need is rye (or whiskey), bitters (Mr. Boston calls for Peychaud's), Pernod (or other absinthe substitute), fresh lemon twists, sugar cubes (or 1/2 tsp. simple syrup per drink) and ice for chilling the glasses.

I like to list the ingredients here because it reminds me of my new passion: mise en place.  It's just getting your workstation stocked and ready.  But that is the part I have always rushed through, which means I often work with too little/poorly organized counter space or without some ingredients in reach (or even in the house).  Now that I am finally recovered from back pain and can focus, I seem to have lost my patience for disorganization in the kitchen.  It's like a switch has been flipped, and at age 33 I am all of a sudden using my ramekins as prep bowls and keeping my countertop clean and clear. 

I find this pretty hilarious, since after 33 years of just jumping right into most endeavors, I have virtually no organizational skills in my repertoire.  You may find this hard to believe, especially if you can picture the calm and collectedness I always attempt to project.  Believe it.  I have never kept a datebook/calendar longer than a month, even in grad school.  My filing system is a large bin, overflowing.  When we moved out of SF and I finally got rid of some old records, I had to pay $30 to shred the massive lot.  If for some reason you are not convinced, you should visit me at work.  I am one of those people who holds fast to the belief that if you can't see it, you will forget about it and it won't get done.  So every tiny pending task sits out on my desk, haphazardly and at weird angles, collecting coffee stains and creases from things I set on top of them. 

Sometimes I explain my ability to function despite the chaos I tend to encourage around myself as a testament to how well my mind is organized.  Yay for my mind.  But I am relieved to have finally reached a limit to my disorganization tolerance, even if it is only happening in the kitchen right now.  We all have to start somewhere.  And with a such a pretty mise en place for a sazerac, who could resist making one more?  Take two sazeracs and call me when my husband gets paid.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

fake ice cream for dinner

Today has been one of those days.  I am withholding the boring details.  All you really need to know is that I resorted to eating fake ice cream (the soy-based stuff) for dinner.  I could have heated up some soup or made due with more of what I had for lunch.  But I was just not feeling it. 

There’s mostly good news to report, which I’m hoping evens out a little of the badness of the nutritionally-bereft meal I just shared with you.  The strained ligament in my back has decided to finally knock it off and no longer hurts or restricts my movement.  A month-long battle with random fleas on the cats seems to have been won by Frontline, some serious vacuuming, laundry, upholstery pesticide spray and tons of elbow grease.  We are also making progress on putting the house together.  Kevin put up some snazzy wine glass shelves above the sideboard. 

Until we settled on the shelves we were sure we needed a china cabinet, and there was simply no china cabinet to be had that fit our budget, our existing furniture and both of our tastes.  The closest we came was a 1960s wooden bar cabinet with a fierce metal handle that was finally deemed, “too H.P. Lovecraft.” 

In other good news, it was crazy temperate this past weekend and I got to make one of our favorite meals that just won’t work in the summer heat: spaghetti with meat sauce.  As I’ve done before, I based my recipe on one that appears in The Best Light Recipe from the Editors of Cook’s Illustrated.  I love using a really tasty healthy recipe and then fattening it up a bit.  Do more people do this?  Well you should, because it makes you feel like a genius.  It’s so much easier than taking a fatty recipe and trying to keep the magic while also attempting to keep it real in terms of nutrition.  But it only works if you start from a truly good healthy/light recipe source, like the folks at Cooks Illustrated.  They may be wordy as all get out, but they have impeccable palates and will figure out every tiny way you can tweek your recipe to make your food taste exactly how you want it.  Plus, they like science. 

So on Sunday we opened a bottle of chianti and I got to work on the sauce.  It takes a long time, and I recommend that you have a glass of wine to pleasantly smooth over the drawn out simmering parts.  I am posting the recipe for a double batch, which can make up to 8 servings, at least for small appetites. You definitely will want this stuff in your freezer on days when you might otherwise find yourself reaching for the fake ice cream at dinner time.  Here is a shot of my bounty.

My only excuse is that we ran out of pasta. 

Meat Sauce for Pasta
Based on The Best Light Recipe by the Editors of Cook’s Illustrated

1 large or 2 small onions
2 Tablespoons olive oil
Salt, divided
8 medium garlic cloves (or to taste)
1 lb. grass-fed ground chuck*, divided
4 Tablespoons tomato paste  
2 (28-oz) cans diced tomatoes
4 cups vegetable or chicken broth**
2 bay leaves
½ teaspoon red chili pepper flakes (or to taste)

Mise en place: chop the onions fine and mince the garlic.  Measure out the remaining ingredients and puree the tomatoes in their juice until they reach your desired consistency (I like to put them in the food processor and pulse for about 5-10 seconds). 

Build the sauce base: place the olive oil, the onions, and ½ to1 tsp.salt in a large sauté pan and heat over medium, covered, stirring occasionally, until they are soft.  Add the garlic and stir for about 30 seconds (it will become aromatic).  Turn the heat to medium-high and add ½ lb. of the ground beef.  Break beef into small pieces and cook for about 5 minutes, until it no longer shows any pink.  Stir in the tomato paste, mix in thoroughly and cook for about 2 minutes or until the tomato paste begins to brown.

Add liquid: add the pureed tomatoes, broth, bay leaf, pepper flakes, and about 1 tsp. of salt.  Bring to a simmer, reduce heat to medium, and allow to simmer uncovered for 45 minutes to 1 hour, stirring occasionally. 

Beef it up: Add the remaining ground beef and break it up into small pieces.  Continue simmering the sauce until the beef is cooked through and the sauce is reduced to a desired consistency, about 30-35 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Refine the seasoning: Remove the bay leaf, and add any desired salt or seasoning. 

It will be perfect for serving right then, but you can also freeze it for up to 6 months.  It reheats very easily on the stovetop with a little added water.

Ingredient notes:
*We prefer grass-fed beef because the fat profile is pretty darn healthy, sporting Omega-3s and everything. 
**I always use Better Than Bullion Vegetarian No Chicken Base instead of stock.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

the slow plunge

It’s a hot sunny day and I have no plans to go outside.  Today is a stabilization day for the ligaments in my back.  Sitting is swiftly becoming boring, so I’m standing at the butcher block in my kitchen as I type.

You can see it here, through the dining room doorway, with the paint samples we tested out for the dining room.  Orange turned out to be a TERRIBLE idea, and the samples are now under several layers of paint, the topmost being a peachy vanilla that reminds me of our honeymoon in Charleston.  It has a way of keeping light in the corners, unlike the previous color, which had a most drab effect on our moods.  Our living room is now a Charleston-esque color as well.  We selected a light blue-green that lends the space an airy, classy feel.   Sometimes I look around and realize our palette might be construed as pastel.  But these colors do something more complex than the word pastel can convey.  They have a harmonious, intricate relationship with the light in the house.  They transition from the first rays of sun in the morning to the bright elegance of the afternoon to the softness of the evening in such a knowing way that makes me wonder if the colors have an intelligence of their own.   And these colors like to dance with other colors, like the bright reds and oranges on our mantel.

So many things have changed since I wrote last.  We are living in Durham now, in love with our little house and new city.  Kevin and I got married in Durham Central Park, surrounded by our amazing families and friends.  I’ve been working as a permanent employee for 3 months now.  The benefits seem so alien to me.  I’ve got health insurance cards in my wallet and a giant life insurance policy arrived in the mail today.  Talk about a morbid piece of mail.  But some things have stayed very much the same.  I still need this space to focus on my domestic life.  Things have become somewhat of a blur in the process of moving & getting married, and that is partially due to my not taking the time to write.  It’s awesome that I’ve got all this life in my life.  But I’ll just be left with some variation of blur if I don’t take some time to write, to process, to share. 

What I want to share today is the slow plunge.  It’s a technique of Kevin’s.  On mornings when we make coffee at home (which means, we somehow are able to deny the siren call of Joe Van Gogh’s, one of the best coffee shops that ever existed) we tend to make French press.  It has more mouthfeel, probably due to the fact that there’s no paper filter to absorb the oil coating the beans.  We aren’t sure if it actually enhances the flavor, but there are claims that pressing the coffee slowly avoids bruising the grounds and gives the coffee a more mellow character.  So we practice the slow plunge.  I spend maybe 8-10 seconds to press the coffee instead of 3.  That’s doable.

Doing things slowly is a generally little scary for me.  I really like doing things quickly, being productive, getting caught up in momentum, feeling that I am working towards mastery.  Slowing things down leaves room for questions, doubt, and the possibility of losing direction.  It’s no wonder I love the term slow plunge.  “Plunge” totally hits upon the element of fear and yet the addition of “slow” makes it sound a bit ludicrous, laughable, like the danger is easily avoided.  I’m keeping this in mind as I slow things way down to mend the ligaments in my back.  The fact that my back has been hurting so much is a sign that I need to shift my momentum anyway.  So I’m taking the plunge, slowing things down, and writing to stem the blur.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

party * time

I love having people over.  I love the menu/drink planning, the anticipation, and the primping. We have not hosted a get-together other than a casual dinner or game night with 1 or 2 friends since we moved to Chapel Hill. It’s been six long months of no party-throwing!  But last night changed all that.  In honor of my birthday, Kevin issued the party decree.  He rounded up my friends’ email addresses, scheduled a time for guests to arrive, and figured out what we needed to have on hand.  I went with him to grocery store and picked out prosecco, while he procured beer. 

It is always surprising how much I actually like cleaning when I have guests coming over.  It is the perfect activity to burn off party jitters and it is fun to watch as your home slowly starts looking its best.  I love that moment when you put the last thing in place and suddenly the stage is set.  Our place looked far from perfect – cat hair is ever present on all upholstered surfaces and we are not the sort of people who dust regularly.  But there was a distinct moment when we looked up and the place was ready.  It proclaimed: cue the music, light the candles, and bring out the candy dishes, because we are having a party. 

Kevin’s concept was simple: drinks and dessert.  He asked that people just bring themselves, but if they desired to bring something, a gluten-free sweet or a drink to share would be welcome.  Two guests brought desserts they had made from scratch – a very decadent flourless chocolate torte replete with caramel sauce and some wonderful, crisp chocolate chip cookies.  Other guests poured in with all manner of toffee and chocolate barks, as well as luscious red wine.  Everyone milled about, meeting new people and sampling the sweets.  It was so deeply satisfying to have a house full of new, lovely friends.

One of my favorite things about the South is that people say they are leaving, but then stay for another half an hour.  Kevin calls it the Southern goodbye.  It is not done out of good manners, it’s a result of wanting to stay longer and linger over the interesting things to say that only manage to pop in your head the moment you put your coat on.  So while someone may have to go, they will take their time about it, and you can continue savor the party.  It’s very charming to me that just because someone has announced they are leaving doesn’t mean you can’t have a perfectly engaging long conversation with them on their way out the door – in fact, it’s encouraged. 

Eventually, all the guests left.  We did the dishes and played with the cats and poured over all the great little moments of the night.  In the morning our house still looked good and the champagne glasses in the dish rack struck me as downright insouciant.  They seemed sparkly and smug knowing what fun they had facilitated the night before.  While I don’t feel smug, I do feel a little sparkly inside after having such a nice get-together.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

taco night!

We had snow again lately.  When it snows, all good North Carolinians storm the grocery store.  This time, as we braved the crowds and marveled at how full everyone’s carts were, I caught sight of a woman purchasing organic taco shells.  I had seen them on the shelves before.  But I’d never considered buying them.  Taco shells are not involved in any authentic cuisine.  This I knew after nine+ years in San Francisco, cultivating an appreciation of real Mexican food.  Despite what I knew, I was intrigued.

Truth be told, a few weeks ago I’d lingered over a taco seasoning packet, much like the Old El Paso ones my mother favored for taco night.  This one promised no MSG and no gluten ingredients.  I felt ashamed as I handled the packet, worried someone might see me.  Seasoning packets are in the same category as bottled salad dressing and Molly McButter – a category of products I had decided was not for me.  If you rely on these products, how can you learn to season your food properly?  Since I was committed to learning, I decided a long time ago to beef up my spice collection, purchase a variety of vinegars, keep lemons and garlic in the house, and use a lot of salt.  Becoming familiar with how to use these ingredients has brought me some confidence, and apparently a bit of snobbishness.  Despite wanting the strangely alluring packet, I put it back – after reading the ingredient label and confirming that it wasn’t something I couldn’t make myself.

As I registered my intrigue at witnessing someone purchase hard taco shells, I remembered this taco seasoning packet.  Before my internal censor kicked in, I suggested taco night to Kevin.  His face lit up.  We quickly loaded up the seasoning, shells, organic ground beef and a fancy ‘Mexican’ blend of shredded cheese.  Tonight was going to be taco night, and we were excited. 

We both grew up loving taco night.  My mother remembers me telling her as a child that we always laughed more as a family when she made tacos for dinner.  Kevin has plenty of positive associations with taco night as well.  He makes great food shoveling gestures as he describes how he used to fill the taco shells at the table & chow down on them. 

When we got home, I realized for the first time that I’d never made tacos before.  Luckily there are instructions right on the little seasoning packet.  I started with the suggested chopped onion sauté and then added the beef and the spices.  It surprised me to learn that a can of tomato sauce was recommended.  I didn’t have tomato sauce, but I did have some tomato paste, which I stirred into the beef just before taking it off heat.  I was scared to taste it, afraid I’d outgrown my taste for the kind of tacos I loved as a child.  But this was taco night.  We were destined to have a good time.  So I sampled a bit of the beef on a chip and it was good.  It was rather spicy, in fact.  We now expectantly set about the task of structuring our tacos to very particular specifications.  Separately, we grew up preferring to layer the hot, seasoned beef in the shell first, then sprinkle on the cheese, so it would melt.  After that one would pile on other cold-temperature toppings, which included iceberg lettuce in both of our houses.  My mother would always have chopped tomatoes and sliced black olives on hand.  Kevin’s mother provided salsa.  The one element we added to our taco night that had not been present in either of our childhoods was avocado slices.  

We each started off with two tacos and couldn’t help but fix a third.  It was discovered that one must heat up the taco shells in the oven, instead of eating them right out of the package, despite how impatient one is on taco night to get to the taco eating part.  We ate, we laughed, we remembered fun family dinners, and we made a tiny sailboat out of broken shell pieces and an avocado slice.  The phrase “I love taco night” was uttered several times throughout the evening. 

It’s hard not to get rigid about food rules or let my food snobbishness take over in the grocery store.  But this time I’m really glad I followed my intuition.  Our dinner involved a seasoning packet, but one that opened up a feeling we both wanted – memories of family dinners where our mothers didn’t have to work too hard and together, everyone ate happily.    

The next day Kevin introduced me to his family’s tradition of making taco salads for lunch with the leftovers from taco night.  He lamented the fact that we don’t have Wishbone Italian Dressing, which was a keystone ingredient for his childhood palate.  We used homemade white balsamic vinaigrette to which we’d added a little garlic powder.  It sufficed.  But I think we’re going to buy some Wishbone dressing.   

Monday, February 8, 2010

a pause

My Dad recently unearthed this picture of me; I’m about 5 years old here.  It captures something that feels relevant to this moment: it’s a pause.  Lately my more involved domestic undertakings have been turning out wonky.  The no-fail Bolognese sauce recipe suddenly produced much too watery results.  The comforting mushroom risotto dish which required a lot of arm strength turned out bland and unappealing.  While the latter disappointment was mostly caused by a dearth of parmesan cheese, I can still take a hint.  I am not at the top of my game.  I need to pause.

A week ago I lost my Grandma.  My body has been reacting to the grief with tightness and pain in the muscles around my sacrum.  What with the recent severe weather, the grief and the pain, it seems there is a strange confluence of forces acting to keep me at home, resting, and still.

Luckily, there is nothing wrong with feeling down, with feeling grief.  I am grateful to have had some extra free time during this past week.  Given that my concentration has been a bit compromised, it’s a relief that my schedule was mostly cleared of important tasks – so I was not at risk to muck up anything terribly vital.      

My time off at home has been filled with lots of little wedding-related tasks and coffee and slumbering cats.  I’ve assigned myself the project of.uploading photos to our wedding website.  It seems to be well chosen, as the photos of our good times in SF, roadtrip across the country, and new life here prove to be smile-inducing.  Projects, if selected carefully, help me immensely.  I love feeling productive.  I have ideas of moving on to making paper flowers later.  But I am trying not to get too ambitious.  I need tasks with small steps that I can undo if I get something wrong.  Since paper flowers involve quick-drying glue, they should probably be put on hold for now.

Yesterday I put together a simple recipe that I’d like to share with you.  Since it has so few ingredients I knew it would be perfect for right now.  The concept came from my trusty copy of The Silver Palate New Basics (original, not 25th anniversary edition).  After reading its suggestion to add Cointreau to the milk/egg mixture I got the idea to throw in some bourbon, since I like bourbon’s caramel notes.

French toast with lemon and bourbon

2 eggs, beaten
about ½ cup milk (eyeball what looks good to you)
1 oz bourbon (I used Bulleit)
1 tsp lemon zest
tiny pinch nutmeg
5-6 pieces of bread, very lightly toasted
butter, for pan
maple syrup, warmed for topping

Combine first 5 ingredients and let mixture sit for 15 minutes.  I’m not sure if this is necessary, but I did it and I was happy with the way the flavors combined.  The bread should be toasted very lightly, just enough to take a little of the moisture out of it – we don’t want soggy French toast.  Put your frying pan over medium heat and melt the butter.  When pan is hot enough, stir the egg mixture.  Immediately after stirring, dip the pieces of bread into it, on both sides.  You may let them sit/soak for a few seconds, but be careful of sogginess here too.  However, if your bread is multigrain you probably should let it sit for a few seconds, since it is harder for very grainy bread to absorb a coating.  Place the coated bread in the pan and let cook until a nice golden brown color develops.  Flip the toast and let the same color develop on the other side.  If your pan is small or you are cooking them in batches, be careful to lower the heat after the first batch, or the pan will be too hot and the golden brown color will develop too quickly.

Serve the French toast with warm maple syrup.

The next time you need to pause, but you also need a nice breakfast, give this a try.